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A Back-to-School Balancing Act: The Lurking Danger of Stereotype Threat

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Wednesday, September 1, 2021 - 14:15

By Heidi Allison Bender, PhD, ABPP-CN
and Jessica Spat-Lemus, PhD

The greatest gymnast of all time may have been grounded by a societal foe she never saw coming – let’s not allow that to happen to our kids

Are our kids getting “lost in the air”? That’s how Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, described the feeling she had as she faltered on a vault that she had flawlessly executed countless times before. While the weight of Olympic rings and her country’s expectations were undoubtedly crushing for Ms. Biles, a less visible pressure should be acknowledged, especially as kids head back to school and sports: stereotype threat. 

On cereal boxes, in print and TV ads, and on social media, Ms. Biles has become the face of Team USA, the exemplar of a champion, gold medalist, elite athlete. Beyond her athletic achievements, Ms. Biles has shown us many other faces of herself, in interviews that gave us a multi-layered view of an emotionally attuned young athlete. She has self-identified with historically marginalized and stereotyped groups and has used her platform to speak out against injustices facing Black and Brown people, female athletes, and sexual abuse survivors. As her recent Tweet stated, “I truly feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” Her words suggested more than the obvious pressures of needing to “stick the landing” on a global stage. Stereotype threat is born out of the adversities facing marginalized subgroups and confers an additional, less-well-known risk for reduced mental health and performance blocks.   

According to the seminal work of psychologists Aronson & Steele, stereotype threat is “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype” (article in The Atlantic, 1999), which may contribute to underperformance as a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, women have been historically thought to have weaker mathematical abilities compared to their male counterparts. That’s a stereotype with a genesis in long-held (albeit incorrect) beliefs of genetic superiority and sociocultural differences between men and women (Schmader and Johns, 2003). However misguided, these misperceptions have not only led to lower performance in standardized math tests, but they also drive the continued underrepresentation of women in STEM fields secondary to a stigmatized social identity. 

Steele and his colleagues (Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002) maintained that stereotype threat may not be consciously apparent to those experiencing it, nor to those further building and propagating the threat — in this case the media, athletic associations, or even those closest to the athletes. Stereotype threat is not just specific to those with global platforms, but rather, it has been shown to adversely impact performance in the classroom, workplace, social circles, and even in recreational sports. Studies have also demonstrated that stereotype threat has been observed to underlie performance differences among minority populations in different settings. The most well-known study evaluating this construct was conducted by Aronson and Steele (1995), which revealed a tendency for non-White students to view themselves as academically or intellectually inferior to their White peers. That view is secondary to broad negative societal heuristics that falsely shaped their academic identities, thereby contributing to less-than-optimal performances on standardized measures. Multiple studies have also evaluated the presence and impact of stereotype threat in the sporting arena, whereas stereotypes tied to an athlete’s race and gender – both positive and negative – can influence the ways in which they train, perform, and assess their own abilities (Beilock and McConnell, 2004; Stone, Chalabaev, & Harrison, 2012).   

Clearly Ms. Biles does not have any issues with underperformance. The insidious part of stereotype threat, though, is the added pressure – often completely unconscious – that any flaw in performance could be incorrectly attributed to a negative social stereotype about an individual’s in-group. This is never more true than on the Olympic stage, with interviews increasingly laden with questions that go beyond her routines for Tokyo 2020. Those interviews also spotlight the sociodemographic background and traumatic experiences that she has endured throughout her young life. For Ms. Biles, it is not just one group that she identifies with — and by extension, feels responsible for — but at least three underrepresented populations for which she has lent her voice in mainstream media and athletics. She does carry a tremendous burden, one that exceeds and eclipses the weight of the outstanding number of medals she has earned as one of the most decorated American gymnasts of all time. 

Beyond the clear mental health consequences, stereotype threat can endanger self-integrity, in that there can arise a cognitive dissonance between an individual’s concept of themselves and their successes, which conflicts with negative societal expectations. Although the direct impact of stereotype threat in sporting performance is comparatively quite limited, available evidence suggests that the threat of confirming a negative stereotype in a sports context causes athletes to focus on avoiding failures, instead of on reaching a goal. Such internal and external incongruence can serve as a catalyst for the body’s stress-related responses (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). With that state of heightened reactivity comes diminished ability for emotional control and regulation, rational decision making, anticipation of negative consequences, response time, and ability to cope. Per Stone, Chalabaev, and Harrison (2012), a focus on the negative weakens performance, because “it interrupts proceduralized sensorimotor responses and impairs working memory capacity,” resulting in uncharacteristic errors.  

So, when Ms. Biles describes “getting lost in the air,” she may well be lost in more than just her own individual pressure to perform, as the potential influence of stereotype threat in both her personal and professional worldviews may alter her perspective of her abilities and others’ judgements of them. Only she can determine whether counseling and therapy can help her develop coping strategies to enhance her emotional well-being. More broadly, we as a country can best support excellence and advancement by all through awareness of stereotype threat and, in doing so, proactively applying interventions that can overcome its deleterious effects.  

Ms. Biles’ legacy in gymnastics is incontrovertible, as is her position as an advocate for the social injustices facing the US today. She is a role model to many without a voice or platform, and for that she is to be applauded. Beyond her awards and honors in the gymnastics arena, Ms. Biles will undoubtedly continue to be a catalyst for change and a champion of the need for increased awareness of mental health issues in athletes. It would be helpful if we all strove to understand the many potential underlying forces that propel athletes like Ms. Biles down the vault runway. And as our kids head back to school this fall and start or continue their sports careers, let’s not to pressure them into representing more than their own best efforts.

Heidi Allison Bender, PhD, ABPP-CN, is Director of Neuropsychological Services at the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center in New York. Jessica Spat-Lemus, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Neuropsychology in Neurosurgery, also at the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center.